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International Socialism, February 1975


Dave Hughes



From International Socialism, No.75, February 1975, p.31-32.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Stalin, The Man and His Era
A.B. Ulam
Allen Lane, £6.50.

Stalin As Revolutionary 1879-1929, A Study in History & Personality
R.C. Tucker
Chatto & Windus, £4.75.

SINCE Khrushchev denounced some of the excesses of the Stalin period (for example the mass purges and forced exile of whole populations) many historians have explained the whole period in terms of Stalin’s ‘cult of the personality’.

For revolutionary socialists, individuals are important as representatives and spokesmen of classes and social groups. The question is not one of obsessive or excessive traits in Stalin’s character make-up. Who did Stalin represent and speak for? What were the consequences of this for the first workers’ state? Neither of these biographies ask or answer these questions. This review will try to point to some of the answers.

Against considerable odds the Russian workers held on to the power they seized in 1917. By 1921 they had defeated the counter-revolution. But internationally the tide of workers’ revolt had subsided. The workers’ state was isolated.

In Russia the civil war had closed down most of the factories and industries. The best workers were drawn into administrative work or died at the front. The workers’ councils (soviets) ceased to function effectively as instruments of workers’ democracy. Surrounded by 25 million peasant holdings (which could not be relied on to support the workers’ state) the new state still had to rely on the old functionaries of the Tsar to an enormous extent A bureaucracy and apparatus had replaced workers’ democracy. The growing confidence of this bureaucracy is the history of Stalin’s rise to power. Stalin stood firm on two policies which clearly expressed the narrow, administrative mind of the apparatus. First, the Bolsheviks had always argued that only international revolution could solve the problems of the isolated workers’ state. They judged the communist movement elsewhere in terms of its ability to lead the independent struggle for workers’ power. To this Stalin replied that socialism could be built in one country. This was not a theological debate (although both these biographies think it is). It followed from Stalin’s position that the international communist parties had a new role to play. As socialism was being built in Russia the communist parties should seek to win influential friends for Russian diplomatic ends. The international communist movement had to be subordinated to the national interests of Stalin’s bureaucracy.

Secondly Stalin and his supporters stood implacably against the restoration of workers’ democracy in the party. As general secretary Stalin was ideally placed to put this platform into practice. By skillful use of appointment and patronage he ensured that his supporters were positioned throughout the apparatus. Thugs were sent to shout down Left Oppositionists putting their case at party meetings. Debate in the party press was stifled and rigged. During the mid 1920s Stalin’s group had few coherent policies.

Balancing between the demands of the workers and peasants the apparatus made increasing concessions to the rich peasants to ensure stability. The nationalism and hostility to workers’ democracy of Stalin voiced the growing narrowness and confidence of the bureaucrats. Trotsky described the Stalin grouping of the 1920s as a centrist grouping. It had no coherent policy or programme beyond maintaining the status quo. But with such policies the apparatus could not hope to stay on top indefinitely. Their desire to reduce as many problems as possible to simple administrative solutions left them isolated and vulnerable. The development of industry was neglected and workers’ democracy discouraged. In the countryside the power of the rich labour-hiring peasantry grew day by day. By the end of the 1920s this position could continue no longer.

Faced with peasant refusal to sell grain in 1927 and 1928 Stalin realised the apparatus had to make a number of decisions. Having excluded international revolution from their perspectives – with disastrous consequences for the revolutionary movement – Stalin was clear about his own solution. Surrounded by a hostile world and internally encircled by a hostile peasantry. Stalin and the bureaucracy adopted their own, purely national solution. In November 1928 Stalin declared: ‘If one thinks in terms of the environment in which we are placed, then it must be recognised that this environment compels us to adopt a rapid role of growth for industry.’ But, industrialisation for Stalin and the bureaucracy had a particular content. It would ensure that the bureaucracy could survive in the world. For this to be so the working class would have to pay the price. In the name of planning, the working class was driven to achieve unattainable production figures. The 1937 target for cars, for example, was achieved in 1971. All the gains of the workers’ revolution were eradicated. Between 1928 and 1933 workers’ living standards fell by up to one third. An internal passport system was introduced which effectively prevented the worker from leaving his job. Trade unions were stripped of all rights to protect workers against this onslaught The last vestiges of workers’ control over the state were eradicated.

In the countryside the peasantry were herded into state farms. This was termed ‘collectivisation’. In outlying Kazakhstan it has been estimated that the resisting peasants slaughtered 73 per cent of their cattle and 88 per cent of their horses. Whole villages and areas were transported to Siberia for their resistance to the bureaucracy’s forced domination of the land.

The mechanics of the rule of a new class still had to be shaped. The terror and purges were central to the enforcement of the bureaucracy’s dominance. In the name of purging ‘enemies of the people’ all alternatives to the rule of Stalin and the bureaucracy were smashed. Millions perished in the camps. First target were, of course, the old Bolsheviks and revolutionaries. Trotsky was exiled, his supporters died in the camps. Nearly every remaining member of Lenin’s central committee perished in the 1930s. The purges ensured that the bureaucracy’s dismal orthodoxy could be guaranteed in all areas of Russian life.

A bastard of history the bureaucracy obliterated the gains of the Russian revolution. But it also needed to falsify its own origins and history. The cult of Stalin’s personality crowned the counterrevolution with the ‘great leader’ Stalin, dubbed ‘the Lenin of our time’.

Both of these books are long and dull. Tucker even threatens that his is only the first of three volumes. The biographers miss the point. Far from continuing Bolshevik policies Stalin reversed the political positions of the party. Far from being the man who carried the 1917 revolution forward by industrialising, industrialisation eradicated the gains made by the Russian workers in 1917. Far from being a forceful individual who shaped Russia to his personal will, Stalin, throughout the 1920s and 1930s, was a far sighted antenna for the developing bureaucracy and apparatus. He and his supporters were the vanguard of the bureaucratic counter-revolution. His cult was the tombstone of workers’ power in Russia.

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